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Fifty-six years is enough time for even stupid people to learn what they need to know. Ordinarily, the learning process doesn’t include opportunities to correct past mistakes. Today is an exception.

This afternoon, I will marry my beloved Tammy, that beautiful, slender blonde I fell in love with more than 40 years ago. A lot of years have passed and I’ve been through some really twisted shit here and there, but I’m getting the chance to right a wrong that’s decades old. Not many of us get to do that.

In honor of this occasion, I’m sharing a classic painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder, one that Tammy and I enjoyed together at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where it hangs for the enjoyment of everyone.

 

The Wedding Dance (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566)

The Wedding Dance (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566)

She’s the one I never forgot, no matter how many years and miles came between us. She’s the one I returned to three years ago. She’s the one who’ll be at my side for the rest of my life, or hers, however it turns out.

Daquri in a Bag (©2012 by Richard X. Moore)

Daquri in a Bag (©2012 by Richard X. Moore)

For all of the wandering, for all of the problems, the mistakes, and the precipitous falls, I find myself in a place that feels like home for the first time in my life. If you’re patient enough, sometimes things just work out that way. It really is better to be lucky than good.

Apologies to both Shakespeare and to Steinbeck, both of whom had used those words, in PG-13 form and with much greater literary impact.

In case you hadn’t noticed, this winter has been long, brutally cold, and snowy. I’ve hated just about every minute of it and that’s not typical for me. Ordinarily, I find beauty and elegance in the winter landscape and have frequently photographed it. Not this time.

Take this morning, for example. When Tammy and I got up, she to get ready for work, me to put the coffee on, it was officially  -6 degrees outside. The average daily high temperature for the final day of February (Leap Years notwithstanding) is 37 degrees. It’s been a particularly ugly winter for the last two months. I’m over it.

Still, winter does possess a stark and forbidding beauty that’s undeniable. Low sun and dark blue shadows create mood and texture that you can only find on the shortest of days.

Rooftops in the Snow (Gustave Caillebotte -1878)

Rooftops in the Snow (Gustave Caillebotte -1878)

Caillebotte‘s “Rooftops” sets a somber tone that, I suspect, mirrors the mood of the unseen inhabitants beneath those snow-covered roofs in rooms that I imagine were far colder and draftier than the one I sit in now.

Brighter and more cheerful winter images of the winter landscape dominate the work of Walter Launt Palmer (1854-1932),  a painter who came from, and eventually resettled in, Upstate New York and found in the winter landscape his most frequent muse. Most of his winter paintings showed us a calm and beautiful land in elegant slumber, waiting for the warmth of spring to awaken it. A little like us, I suppose, or me anyway, as I bide my time thinking of longer, warmer days ahead.

Upland Stream (Walter Launt Palmer, 1904)

Upland Stream (Walter Launt Palmer, 1904)

But even Palmer, unabashed lover of the winter landscape, couldn’t help but show us the more difficult side of the season, one of those nights when you find yourself out against your will, immersed in the elements, wishing you could be home in front of your fireplace, curled up with a cup of tea and a good book. His Albany in the Snow takes me out into the storm so vividly that I can almost feel the bone-chilling wind.

Albany in the Snow (Walter Launt Palmer, 1871)

Albany in the Snow (Walter Launt Palmer, 1871)

The day will soon come when Spring will  show herself and the annual rebirth will begin. I will not mourn the passing of the winter of 2013-14, but I may secretly look forward to the next winter and hope that it’s more to my liking. I find myself in need of a rebirth of my own, having created nothing of consequence in more than two years. Somethings as simple, as routine, as a break in the weather will be what I need. I will make it true.

 

I’ve mentioned Warhol several times here in these pages, mostly talking about how spectacularly uninspiring I find most of his work to be. Today, on what would have been his 85th birthday, his legions of admirers are going all-out to celebrate his career. More power to them.

In order to commemorate banality with more banality, the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (his birthplace) is providing us with a live webcam trained on  his gravesite. I watched it for awhile this morning. Mostly, there’s just a couple of balloons waving in the breeze but for a brief time there I was treated to the sight of two women taking pictures of his headstone and waving at me. Cool.

There’s even a link you can click on to order flowers and actually watch them be delivered. Cooler still.

And…as if that weren’t enough, they’ve even converted some stills of the grave site to Warhol-style “art.

Andy Warhol's Grave - Pop Art Style (from EarthCam via Huffington Post)

Andy Warhol’s Grave – Pop Art Style (from EarthCam via Huffington Post)

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade here, but Warhol’s greatest “gift” to our culture was to define art as anything you wanted it to be, which in my book defines it out of existence. If everything is art, then nothing is.

This is not to say that art is meant to be exclusionary. It isn’t. But it should have something to tell us. Warhol began by breaking down the barriers between art on the one hand and people’s everyday lives on the other, which was good. It started out as a favor but  then quickly eroded into a blizzard of repetition, solipsism, and self-homage. Eventually, he became a caricature of himself. He opened doors by completely removing walls, leaving nothing for structure and support.

His work leaves me feeling spiritually empty. He symbolizes the erosion of seriousness and of depth and spawned a generation of followers who continued his destructive legacy.

Tammy Visits with Chairman Mao (©2013 Richard X. Moore)

Tammy Visits with Chairman Mao (©2013 Richard X. Moore)

On the bright side. I can call myself an artist now. Everyone can.

 

A precious day off has been reconfigured by the rain. Most of what I had planned to do today was outdoors so I find myself instead sitting at my desk, watching the birds flit around in the trees outside my window. They look busy in the small spaces between the branches,  pausing from time to time to shake the water off their wings.

Rain nourishes the earth. Sometimes I think that rain nourishes the mind because it has me reflecting back over the last two years and recalling a life changing dramatically, first at light-speed and then unfolding slowly, day by day, and delivering me to the present as someone else, someone I barely recognize but like a lot.

Each day has something fresh and exciting to offer. Even the wet and dreary ones. Approach them all with arms open wide.

Rain in the Oak Grove (Ivan Shishkin, 1891)

Rain in the Oak Grove (Ivan Shishkin, 1891)

I found myself wondering this morning what Edward Hopper, who was painting scenes of personal isolation and alienation more than a century ago, would think if he were around today as saw people “talking” to each other by tapping a screen on a smartphone.

For me, the smartphone is the perfect symbol of the slow, agonizing death of conversation. We don’t have to talk to anyone anymore; we just need to send a stream of sentence fragments through the ether and wait for a similar set of sentence fragments to come bouncing back. I’ve actually seen, more than once, groups of people at restaurant tables not talking to each other but, instead, silently pounding out messages on their little screens to people God knows where. It makes me wonder why they bothered to come out in the first place.

I imagine you could take any number of Hopper’s paintings, put smartphones in the hands of the people therein, and not really change the painting much at all. The technology wouldn’t create the distance between people, it would only make it a bit more tangible.

Cape Cod Evening (Edward Hopper, 1939)

Cape Cod Evening (Edward Hopper, 1939)

Take a good look at Cape Cod Evening, above. If you put a pair Iphone 5s in the hands of this couple, would you really widen the obvious gulf between them? I don’t think so. Do the same with his classic Nighthawks. Same result.

Take a look, too, at the dog; animated, aware, living the moment in both time and space. This is one reason why, if I were ever given the choice, I just might choose to live at least one lifetime as a dog.

I doubt Hopper, who would be celebrating his 129th birthday today if he were still among us, would be pleased by what he would see, but I’d bet that he’d notice it. The smartphone certainly didn’t put this chasm between us, but it certainly gave it, figuratively speaking, some weight.

On this day in 1931, American Impressionist artist Robert Spencer ended his own life at the age of 51. I saw his name in one of my “this day in art history” sources and was puzzled by the fact that despite his fairly impressive resume, I can’t recall ever hearing of him before. None of my American Art references mention him. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, which to me is the very pinnacle of obscurity these days. This seems a bit tragic to me because Robert Spencer, the artist who has no Wikipedia page, probably has more relevance to my life than Robert Spencer, the Second Earl of Sunderland (1641-1702), who DOES have his own Wikipedia page.

My own small contribution toward correcting this art historical oversight will be featuring Spencer’s work here, thereby insuring that at least 7 other people will see it.

On the Canal, New Hope (Robert Spencer, 1916)

On the Canal, New Hope (Robert Spencer, 1916)

A Nebraska native, Spencer ended up in New York early in the 20th Century and studied under both William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, possibly the two most important educators on the American art scene at the time. Rather than stay in New York, he drifted around for a little while and ultimately ended up in  Pennsylvania, specifically Bucks County, in 1916, where he came to be associated with a group of painters known as the “New Hope School.”

The New Hope School practiced an art known collectively as Pennsylvania Impressionism. They were united more by geography than style. Of their creative output that I’ve seen, which admittedly isn’t a lot, Spencer’s work stands out because of his workaday subjects and subtle, almost somber tones. He was a painter of the working class, not of the leisure class. The people in his paintings are usually features, not subjects, and they don’t often look like they’re having much fun.

Washer Woman (Robert Spencer, 1919)

Washer Woman (Robert Spencer, 1919)

He was well known and respected in his time and his work hangs in some of our finest museums including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, the Chicago Institute of Art, and our own Detroit Institute of Art, which owns the first of the paintings I’ve presented here; On the Canal, New Hope. If it’s currently hanging, I’ll hunt it down like I did John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar two years ago. Influential collector and museum founder Duncan Phillips compared Spencer favorably to Sloan (high praise indeed) and the museum Phillips founded owns eight of Spencer’s paintings.

Spencer was not a happy guy despite his relative success. He suffered a series of nervous breakdowns in his later years owing to a bad marriage and his work took a decidedly darker tone. The third painting here, On the Quai, is to my eye pretty disturbing and grows even more so the longer I look at it. I can only sense sadness in this image, the source of which is left to the viewers imagination. Given the choice, I’m not enthusiastic about entering the door Spencer has opened up for us.

On the Quai (Robert Spencer, 1929)

On the Quai (Robert Spencer, 1929)

Spencer was producing a body of intriguing work when killed himself in his studio on this day in 1931. He could have had a couple of decades of productive painting ahead of him had he not chosen to punch out early, so to speak. The artistic legacy he left us is competent and thought-provoking. If even one more person takes an extra moment to consider it, I will have done my job.

 

 

 

Although a number of other dates could have reasonably been chosen, we celebrate July 4th as the birthday of this great nation. It was on this day 237 years ago that a group of aristocrats from what would later become the 13 original United States signed a document telling the British Empire, the most powerful nation on the planet at the time, that we’d had enough of their bullshit and were going our own way. We had already taken up arms to back our words up and, a few years later, we became the United States of America.

The Avenue in the Rain (Childe Hassam, 1917)

The Avenue in the Rain (Childe Hassam, 1917)

The Declaration of Independence signed on July 4th stands as one of the most powerful statements of human dignity ever written by anyone, anywhere. Its signing set in motion the creation of both a history and a mythology that we, as Americans, cling to with pride.  In the views of the Founding Fathers we can all find something to support just about any political position we might choose to take, thereby wrapping ourselves in a red, white and blue cloak of patriotism for everyone to see.

Patriotism. One of many words in the English language stripped of its meaning by continued misuse. In a time when anyone who shows up in some dumbassed reality TV show is a “star,” some people think that driving down the road blaring Toby Keith songs in a pickup truck plastered with American flag stickers makes you a patriot.

Personally, I believe that Jefferson would be sickened by what has become of the America he helped create. Think about this: when the debate over the draft declaration was unfolding, only 9 of the 13 colonies actually supported independence. The delegates found a way to set their differences aside and present a united front. Imagine Congress doing something like that today. More likely, they’d find some tricky little procedural way to stall it until they could go on vacation.

We used to be able to come together and solve big problems. These days, what passes for politics involves little more than gathering on the streets screaming at people you disagree with or, worse yet, posting stupid shit on Facebook. Most people never get past sitting in front of a TV watching someone else bitch on their behalf. If you get angry about the right things, well, man, you’re a patriot.

We have become our own tyrants now, but somehow I have all the faith in the world that we can find that rational voice inside our own heads, the one that tells us that a patriot sets aside prejudice and vanity and works for the good of the Nation. Please, America, put down your remote and make a choice to lead or follow, or at the very least, step aside and get out of the way.

The inescapable reality is that I can barely stand social media anymore.

Give people a tool for expressing thoughts and engaging in discourse and what do we do with it? Turn it into a forum for bigotry, self-aggrandizement, self-pity, and bullshit.

What passes for journalism these days is even worse. We have a buffet of hopelessly manipulated propaganda masquerading as facts and we get to shop around until we find what we need to reinforce what we want to believe about the world around us.

“Entertainment” has mutated into something so wretched that a majority of it doesn’t even merit discussion.

If we pay attention, we quickly learn that as a society, we simply can’t discuss anything important anymore. We shout over each others heads and mock anyone who has the gall to hold a different worldview than we do. We retreat into suspicion and hide behind words not of substance but of shadows and fog. Rather than suffer fools, we embrace them. We have replaced leadership with theater.

And, this week, I am reminded yet again that seemingly ordinary people are capable of unspeakable and totally irrational violence. I suppose I should be grateful that I can’t even begin to understand the mind that could contemplate the random murder of total strangers.

What to do in the face of madness?

Simply Water I (©2004 Richard X. Moore)

Simply Water I (©2004 Richard X. Moore)

Seek some kind of peace inside your own skin. Reacquaint yourself with truth. Remind yourself from time to time that there is a line between fact and belief. Surround yourself with people you love and understand.

I find these days that I am longing for the solace I get by wrapping myself in the sound of moving water, where the noise of a culture gone insane doesn’t creep in to disturb the music of the wind and waves of the shore, or of the rapids and falls of a river dancing on rocks and sand.

I know I can’t ignore the world around me, or ever get away from it for very long.

But please, just for awhile, let me sit on the shore and feel the warm breeze, even if it’s only my imagination playing tricks on me.

 

Today is Tammy’s birthday.

Birthdays are a common event, happening in everyone’s life every year, so I figured that a quick review of art history would yield a plethora of birthday-themed images from important painters from history. Boy, was I really wrong.

Such an image search gives you page after page of stuff like this:

Superhero Birthday Party

Superhero Birthday Party

I really like that one, from a blog called Welcome to Sillyville. It would be perfectly appropriate if Tammy were a 9-year old boy, which she isn’t.

Serious painters have rarely tackled the birthday scene, and most of what I’ve found leans toward reverent celebrations in the lives of 19th Century nuclear families, like this one from John Singer Sargent:

The Birthday Party (John Singer Sargent, 1885)

The Birthday Party (John Singer Sargent, 1885)

It’s a quaint and heartwarming scene, and that could actually BE Tammy sitting there if she weighed 200 pounds more than she does now, had much darker hair,  and lived 150 years ago.

And then there’s this celebration from Marc Chagall:

Birthday (Marc Chagall, 1915)

Birthday (Marc Chagall, 1915)

I’m not sure what to make of that one and I’m too old to float around the room now, if indeed I ever could.

For whatever it’s worth, I give you these images in celebration of Tammy’s birthday today. Not sure what I was really hoping for, but these will have to do.

I will leave it to others to figure out whether or not Norman Rockwell was an artist or an illustrator. I don’t particularly care because his work is etched into my memory regardless. His images were simply everywhere. We always seemed to have copies of the Saturday Evening Post and Boy’s Life laying around the house. His work was as recognizable as any face, like a signature on some Great American Manifesto that captured everything we believed we were.

I was blissfully unaware of any real problems in our country when I was a kid. Despite living on the outskirts of a racially divided city, everyone who touched my life in those early years seemed to be really white. There were no minorities in my school. Our TV poured out My Three Sons and Dick Van Dyke and John Wayne movies, in black and white. I’m sure I watched Walter Cronkite every night but nothing really registered, not the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the riots in Detroit and elsewhere. I really thought I lived in a country filled with Rockwell characters fishing, going to the doctor, learning to play musical  instruments, falling in love, or chasing their dogs around the back yard.

Pride of Parenthood (Norman Rockwell, 1958)

Pride of Parenthood (Norman Rockwell, 1958)

I do remember, however, the night Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. I vividly recall staring up at the moon in a clear, sky thinking about an empty universe and time and distance. I was 11 years old but I still think I grasped the gravity of it all. I’m starting to think that reaching the moon was our zenith, that we’ll never come together to meet big challenges like that, ever again.

The Final Impossiblity: Man's Tracks on the Moon (Norman Rockwell, 1969).

The Final Impossiblity: Man’s Tracks on the Moon (Norman Rockwell, 1969)

I was quite astonished to find out, when I finally looked  into Rockwell’s body of work, that he delved deeply into the racial problems that infested our history. The only black people I recall in Rockwell’s work were waiters and baggage handlers in train stations. His political work was published but if I saw it, it just didn’t register because I wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on. It was powerful stuff and I’m sure some people found it inspiring and others were pissed off by it. Either way, paintings like The Problem We All Live With, which shows us a little black girl walking to school in the company of federal marshals, depicts an American reality I can’t even being to understand, one that probably resembles my country more than my memory does.

The Problem We All Live With (Norman Rockwell, 1964)

The Problem We All Live With (Norman Rockwell, 1964)

Whether Rockwell was just an illustrator or a “real” artist doesn’t really matter to me, although I think the power of Problem or the wit of The Connoisseur (below)  are well beyond the reach a majority of people who’ve ever picked up a paintbrush. His work has touched the lives of maybe three generations of Americans. A lot of people seem to be nostalgic for Rockwell’s America these days because it represents the best things we have always wanted to believe about ourselves. We no longer live in that America. I’m starting to believe that it never really existed in the first place.

The Connoisseur (Norman Rockwell, 1962)

The Connoisseur (Norman Rockwell, 1962)

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